Compared with other aging married individuals whose husbands or wives do not suffer from dementia, those whose spouses are diagnosed with the condition are six times more likely to develop dementia themselves, according to new research published today in the Journal of the American Geriatrics Society. Researchers suggest that the stress and responsibility of caring for a spouse with dementia may factor into this increased risk.
The team of researchers, led by Dr. Maria Norton of Utah State University, followed 1,221 heterosexual married couples (2,442 individuals) ages 65 and older for up to 12 years. None of the participants had been diagnosed with dementia at the onset of the study. During the research period, there were 125 cases in which only the husband developed dementia, 70 in which only the wife was diagnosed, and 30 (60 individuals) in which both spouses eventually developed dementia.
The researchers found that, in addition to advanced age, having a spouse with dementia was significantly correlated with individuals’ increased risk for developing the disease themselves. What’s more, men whose wives were suffering from dementia were at an increased risk for a dementia diagnosis themselves, compared with women whose husbands had been diagnosed with the condition.
Researchers say that future research exploring the impact of stress — particularly that of caring for an ailing spouse — is an important next step toward gaining a better understanding of dementia risk. Dementia is an umbrella term for a range of cognitive decline conditions, including Alzheimer’s disease. As of 2006, an estimated 26 million people worldwide had Alzheimer’s disease — a figure that some researchers expect to quadruple by 2050. A recent review of Alzheimer’s prevention research conducted by the National Institutes of Health suggests that, while there are no surefire ways of staving off cognitive decline, eating well, not smoking, and getting regular exercise may help — and certainly won’t hurt.